Synecdoche in Wes Anderson and J.D. Salinger

Do you remember the description in Franny and Zooey of Franny Glass at the platform and the similar scene in The Royal Tenenbaums where Margot is walking towards Richie? I feel as if we could state that both girls are defined by the clothes they wear and their physical beauty. This “material synecdoche”, or symbolic and metaphorical use of objects such as clothing, possessions, natural physical appearance, locations and so on, is ubiquitous in both Salinger’s and Anderson’s work (Seitz). These objects show us readers or viewers the whole personality of a character or the meaning of a situation by focusing on and emphasizing one particular object. Characterization is thus created through a pars pro toto or a metonymy, which means that a thing, person or concept is not called by its own name, but rather by the name of a feature or quality which is intimately associated with this thing, person or concept.

Telling versus Showing

Salinger does this by adding elaborate descriptions of the looks of his characters and the objects they possess (and are defined by). Anderson, on the other hand, can simply show us these pars pro totos and metonymies. Anderson sets in images as narrators and markers of character. His subjects “can find their expression only through image, characterization begins on the surface as a self-conscious image bound up in narrative recursion” (Gooch 30). Subjects looking at themselves and looking at their possessions are presented to us in static frames, making it look as if we are distanced from these empty characters. But the viewer is actually invited to interpret these images and translate them into characteristic traits.

camera hoogte tafel, ned and zissou


Most of Anderson’s characters wear a sort of uniform, which means that they wear the same clothes every day, have very particular physical traits, are the owners of certain typical objects which are always in their neighborhood, and often use these objects as a sort of disguise or costume to deliberately define themselves. His consistent use of the uniform proves that Anderson pays a lot of attention to this kind of characterization and links him undoubtedly to Salinger.

Furthermore, their characters are extremely similar and therefore often employ this material synecdoche in the same way. Knowing this, it becomes more clear that Richie, when ridding himself of his beard, long hair, seventies glasses, and tennis headband tries to get rid of things that have been defining him for years and that he is now ready for a new start. As David Lim explains in his online article on Moonrise Kingdom, “Mr. Anderson wears his inspirations on his sleeve. For him and his characters alike the objects and objets d’art they love are not merely decorative references but also incarnations of passion, markers of identity” (Lim). These objects and costumes were designed with a lot of care and attention. In the making off of The Darjeeling Limited, we learn that everything on the set is handmade by local artists. The drawings on the train are visual interpretations of scenes from the movie, which are barely noticeable for the audience, but are added mainly for the crew and the very observant viewer. Most of the objects used by Anderson are made from scratch, like the library books Suzy carries around in her suitcase. “Each jacket was assigned to a different artist, and Mr. Anderson wrote a brief excerpt for each book” (Lim).

When talking to Emily Dugan, Anderson explains that “in animated movies or live action, the costumes often tell you a lot about the characters, and they’re another opportunity to invent something that might be entertaining to the audience or might give something to the movie. The costumes interest me as much as the sets, as much as the music; you spend 81 minutes watching a film and these clothes are a big part of what you see in the frame” (Anderson as quoted by Dugan). Dugan finds these strange, quirky costumes to be setting “the ironic tone of his productions” because they are nothing like what you would normally expect (Dugan).

Lane, the externalization of snobbery

A good example of the omnipresence of physical descriptions in Salinger’s work is again the scene where Franny arrives by train. Her boyfriend Lane, who is waiting for her, is also elaborately described:

Lane Coutell, in a Burberry raincoat that apparently had a wool liner buttoned into it, was one of the six or seven boys out on the open platform. Or rather, he was and he wasn’t one of them. For ten minutes or more, he had deliberately been standing just out of conversation range of the other boys, his back against the free Christian Science literature rack, his ungloved hands in his coat pockets. He was wearing a maroon cashmere muffler, which had hiked up on his neck, giving him next to no protection against the cold (Salinger “Franny” 3).

So not only the beautiful Franny is described, but also her snobbish boyfriend, while this is something that could have easily been skipped. His thin, expensive raincoat and cashmere muffler are mere symbols of snobbery and narcissism as they do not protect him against the cold whatsoever. That he does not wear gloves and only a thin coat could suggest that he does not feel as if he needs any protection. This contrasts with Franny who is wearing a fur coat and is in a vulnerable position. Lane, a pretentious college boy who wants to be seen as a strong, masculine and intelligent guy is captured in this description. We immediately get an image of what kind of young man he is. Not only his own appearance, but also Franny’s appearance is very important to him. He analyzes her clothes and is happy to be seen with such “an unimpeachably right-looking girl” (8). His standing against the Christian Science literature rack suggests that he is, unlike Franny and the rest of the Glass children, not in the least interested in Orientalism and Buddhism, but only cares for conservative Christian values. When Franny and Lane are seated in the restaurant, Lane talks about his paper on the lack of masculinity in Gustave Flaubert for which he received an A despite his professor being fond of the author. Lane is so full of himself that he suggests he will read the paper to Franny when they are in his room. This paper again stresses his own certainty of being masculine. It is exactly this phony bourgeois mentality that Franny is sick of and that will push her even deeper into her break-down.

Seymour, the Attractive Ugly Man

Sam Baskett writes, in his article on the splendid and squalid world of Salinger, about “Seymour, an Introduction” that “his appearance is given, feature by feature; we learn his attitude toward sports, Zen, reading, sleep, American culture, writing, and on and on” (Baskett 56). The narrator of Seymour, an introduction, Buddy Glass, sees it as his task to give an elaborate description of his brother’s physical appearance and takes this task very seriously. He mentions the abundance of Seymour’s black hair, his height, his sincere smiles, his lack of chin, his prominent Jewish nose, his hands, the odd and costumy clothes he wore, and so on. Buddy concludes by saying that his brother was an Attractive Ugly man. At one point, Buddy even wonders if he is not overdoing this whole physical description, which goes on for pages and pages. This might be Salinger pointing our attention to it. By describing the physical appearance of Seymour, the reader gets a very thorough image of who this man was because we are all more or less defined by what we look like, how we choose to dress and the things we prefer to keep close.

drie op een rij naast hun koffers

My suitcase is packed with my personality

A recurring image in both Anderson’s and Salinger’s work is that of characters running around with luggage. The focus on this luggage implies a metaphorical meaning. Both authors seem to suggest that their characters are constantly on the run: either literally or figuratively.
Some characters, like Holden in The Catcher, young Margot and Richie in The Royal Tenenbaums, and Sam and Suzy in Moonrise Kingdom are literally running away from home and carry luggage with personal belongings with them. Suzy has packed her beloved books, her binoculars, lefty scissors, her cat and canned cat food. All these objects define her and the luggage itself helps her to keep her beloved objects close. The Whitman brothers in The Darjeeling Limited carry around their father’s suitcases. Wes Anderson paid a lot of attention to the design of these suitcases. He had the luggage designed by Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton and his brother, Eric Anderson, drew the pictures of the miniature animals which were painted on the suitcases. The suitcases are very prominent and pay an important symbolical role in the movie. The brothers have not been able to deal with their father’s death and have hung onto his belongings ever since. Peter wears his father’s spectacles, even though he does not need them, and shaves himself with his father’s retro shaving set. When finding out that Peter has kept the spectacles and the shaving razor, his brothers are jealous because they too want to hang onto their father’s belongings. The suitcases, however, were divided fairly. The loss of their father defines the brothers in such a way that everything they do, even searching for their mother, is dedicated to their father. At the end of the movie, though, they are healed of this mourning and are able to let go of their physical reminders of their father. When one of the brothers yells “dad’s bags aren’t going to make it” while running – in slow motion – towards the train, they laugh and throw them away, suggesting that they finally have found closure and are able to start fresh (The Darjeeling Limited).


Locations as escapism

Locations which are associated with characters also hold meaning in the worlds of Salinger and Anderson. Both authors use museums in New York that deal with natural history and other cultures to imply that their characters feel strongly attracted to alternative ways of living and would much rather live in a world where everything has its place –like in a museum – and remains the same. Order and structure are preferred over chaos and change. This is one way to interpret these locations. Another interpretation is that their characters long for adventure and a different kind of culture or society than they live in now. At first sight these interpretations seem to rule each other out, but in the wondrous worlds of Salinger and Anderson these longings are found side by side. What they have in common is a strong dislike for the current state of the world they live in and the desire for another kind of life.
Basically every location in the Anderson universe holds meaning: Steve Zissou’s microcosm on his boat and the private island he lives on stand for his loneliness and rejection of normal society, the train the Whitman brothers travel on stands for their personal evolution and “spiritual journey” they are going through, the bay which Suzy and Sam named Moonrise Kingdom because of the paradise like state of their discovery and referring to the adventure books Suzy reads, the roadside hotel in Bottle Rocket standing for the state of in-betweenness and the unprofessionalism of Dignan and Anthony, the hotels Royal and Blume stay in which refer to their alienation from their family and no longer having a warm and loving home, and so on. The same goes for the world Salinger’s characters inhabit. Strauch talks about Central Park being a loaded place for Holden in The Catcher:

Central Park represents Holden’s Dark Tower, Dark Night of the Soul, and Wasteland; the paradise of his childhood is bleak, and the ducks that, in his fantasy, he has substituted for the human, have vanished. In effect, Holden is finished with childhood and is prepared for the burdens of maturity. But all the same he gathers up the pieces to be treasured, and in a final act of childhood profligacy – skipping coins over the lagoon – he symbolically rejects the materialism of the adult world that he is about to enter (Strauch 19).

It is striking that most of these locations are transitory places where characters have to go through to undergo a change or evolution in their lives. In the case of The Royal Tenenbaums and the Glass stories this place is the house of the character’s childhood, the place they grew up in. They need to return to the nest before they can fly out again, this time healed and grown.


Bruised inside out

To come back to physical features that define the character’s personalities, injuries are a recurring theme. As Strauch says about Holden’s wounded hand, “mutilation is itself the physical symbol of a psychological state of self-accusation and self-laceration” (Strauch 16). Holden has hurt his hand by means of splintered glass after the death by leukemia of his beloved brother Allie. This wounded hand is the synecdoche for the hero undeservedly blaming himself and being unable to get over his grief for his brother. This mental instability and grief translated into physical wounds is also ubiquitous in Anderson’s films. Both Suzy and Richie, like Holden, hurt their hand due to self-infliction, which points at their deeply rooted mental pains. When Sam asks Suzy why her hand is in a bandage, she answers that “[she] got angry at [her]self” (Moonrise Kindom). Holden’s and Suzy’s mutilations are self-inflicted and deliberate, as are the injuries of Francis in The Darjeeling Limited and Eli’s car accident and Richie’s wounded hand and slit wrists in The Royal Tenenbaums. We are constantly reminded of their suicidal minds through their bandages and scars. But also the non-suicidal characters often suffer from injuries which reflect their mental state. Dignan gets involved in a fight, Walt in Moonrise Kingdom is constantly getting black eyes, Max’s nose bleeds after fighting with his cast, Margot’s wooden finger reminds us of her real finger being cut off, Hennessey is running around with a bandage round his waste after being attacked by pirates and the Zissou team who tried to rescue him, and so on.
The characters who have very obvious physical wounds also admit that they are hurt. Francis, for example, is the only Whitman brother who is shouting out his necessity to heal and his inability to do this on his own. When someone asks Francis, “what happened to your face?”, he answers, “I smashed into a hill on purpose on my motorcycle”. This halfhearted suicide attempt – more a cry for help – has left his face almost unrecognizably wrapped up with bandages. Ironically, Francis is the brother who has actually already healed the most, although he has still got “some healing to do” (The Darjeeling Limited). Francis is also the one showing his snobbism by wearing expensive loafers and belt and constantly drawing the attention to the expensiveness of his belongings. When one of his loafers is stolen, he has to wear an Indian slipper on one foot. Instead of taking off his other expensive loafer, he walks around like a fool with two mismatched shoes. At the end of the journey and movie, however, he will give his belt to his brother and give up his attachment to his expensive possessions. Because he has grown as a person and healed from the grief of losing his father and restored the bond with his brothers, he can let go of his stuff and focus on human relationships again.
As already explained, they all literally and metaphorically leave the luggage of their father behind, and in Francis’ case, also his own crazy need to define himself by his possessions.

sam mk
Superheroes wear Spectacles

Both Anderson and Salinger have burdened their characters with spectacles – and Anderson also with binoculars – to add a boundary between the hero and the outside world. Spectacles and binoculars are both a burden and a super power for they shield our vulnerable misfits from the world they do not want to live in anyway. In the short story “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut”, Eloise’s daughter “Ramona lives in an imaginary world colored by her thick glasses – her off-center vision. Her imaginary private symbols, Micky Mickareeno and Jimmy Jimmareeno, mirror not only her own loneliness but her mother’s marital predicament” (Levine 95). The young girl, though pitied by her mother, is actually quite happy in this imaginary world with her imaginary friends. The innocence of the little girl shielded from the real world filled with alcohol problems, self-consciousness, dead lovers, and unhappy marriages is actually reminding her mother that she has lost the ability to be pure, sweet and naive. Ramona is not conscious of this chasm between how she sees the world and how other people see the world. When one of her imaginary friends, Jimmy, dies, she quickly replaces him with Micky, a new imaginary friend. This breaks Eloise’s heart because she was never able to replace Walt, her lover who died in World War II, and is now stuck in an unhappy marriage with her husband Lew. Sam, one of the heroes in Moonrise Kingdom, also wears thick glasses which do not only make him look odd, but also, like Ramona’s glasses, place a shield between him and the hard world of orphanages and foster families. Richie in The Royal Tenenbaums and Peter in The Darjeeling Limited also detach themselves from our world with their glasses, indeed, literally hide behind them.
But what is even more striking in the movies of Anderson is the use of binoculars as a sort of shield, translator and super power at the same time. Suzy in Moonrise Kingdom is, of all Anderson’s characters, defined the most by her binoculars. She explains to Sam that she uses these binoculars as a magic power to see things closer by even when they are not far away, meaning that she thinks of her binoculars as some sort of supereyes, but also as a device to understand things better, to see them more clearly. A recurrent style device Anderson employs is a mask in the form of binoculars put over the camera lens. By doing so he lets us, the audience, see what his heroes see: a world that is not quite our own, controlled by a creative, though often troubled mind.

Max rushmore

Forget capes and masks, caps and mittens will protect you!

Holden, who cares a lot for innocence and wants to catch all the children in the rye in order to protect them, also wants to protect his friend Jane who is about to go on a date with the “sexy bastard” Stradlater:

This girl, who had had a “lousy childhood” with a booze hound for stepfather running “around the goddam house naked,” always kept her kings in the back row. As Holden put it, “She just liked the way they looked when they were all in the back row.” Half earnestly, half facetiously, he requests Stradlater to ask Jane whether she still keeps her kings in the back row; the symbolism of this imagery, portraying defense against sexual attack, is the central motif of the episode. Stradlater cannot, of course, know what a shocking and menacing figure he has become, for on the simple realistic level the request is merely casual reminiscence; but in the psychological context danger signals have begun fluttering in Holden’s mind (Strauch 13).

Where Jane keeps her kings in the back row, Holden, who wants to protect himself against all the phonies out there, wears a red hunting cap for protection. He wears this cap despite its unfashionable qualities. This cap is his uniform, as he wears it always and everywhere. The cap was bought when he was in New York with his fencing team. His personal preference for weird objects like the hunting cap and the attention he gives these odd objects – but also people – cause Holden to lose the fencing equipment and his spot at Pencey. Nevertheless, Holden keeps his cap on because he feels it makes him unique. The hunting cap stands for Holden knowing and wanting to be different than other people, but also his secretly longing to belong because he takes the cap off when meeting with someone other than his sister. The color of the cap is red, just like Phoebe’s and Allie’s hair, but also like a stop sign. This suggests that the cap symbolizes Holden’s desire to be as innocent, sweet and intelligent as his brother and sister, and that he hopes that while wearing his cap, nothing evil can happen to him. Both Max Fisher and Peanut’s Charlie Brown, very similar characters to Holden, wear symbolic hunting caps.
A second important symbolic object in The Catcher in the Rye is Allie’s baseball mitt. Holden’s now dead brother wrote poems on his mitt in green ink so he would not get bored on the field. Again this is a symbol of goodness and innocence, but also of creativity. The mitt is a pars pro toto for Allie himself who was interested in poetry and had found an intelligent way of spending empty moments on the field. Allie is also an example for Holden because that he had found a way to play the game of life “with sensitivity and imagination” (Strauch 14). Holden himself struggles with playing along while staying true to himself at the same time. Judging other people for participating in the phoniness of the world, he himself is ironically involved in finding a way to play the game of life:

At Pencey Dr. Thurmer had talked to Holden “about Life being a game,” and Mr. Spencer added for the truant’s benefit, “Life is a game that one plays according to the rules.” Toward the end Mr. Antolini sustained the cliché in his overblown rhetoric. Considering Holden’s own honesty and the indifference of his seniors, “playing the game” becomes a grisly farce; and there is further irony in the fact that Holden is himself fervently devoted to the concept, first in his treasuring Allie’s base-ball mitt and then in his confiding in Phoebe that he would like to be a catcher in the rye to save children from falling off “some crazy cliff.” And does he not wear his red hunting hat backwards like a catcher? (Strauch 10).

Let’s play the game of life

This game of life is a theme that runs through all of Salinger’s work. Since this theme stands for the chasm between the real-but-phony world and the innocent and honest imaginary world it also runs through that of Anderson. Both Salinger’s and Anderson’s characters do not feel as if they belong to the outside world and criticize this world for being insincere and thus phony. At the same time, however, they have to play along in order to function and even, to a certain extent, want to participate in the game of life. Therefore, these characters are not realistic, but rather naïve and quixotic. Brannon M. Hancock writes the following about Anderson and his fascination for the game of life in his article “A Community of Characters”:

In his foreword to the screenplay for Rushmore, producer James L. Brooks notes that “Wes and Owen are Texans and so their endless fascination with the ol’ game of life…is very often concealed behind tight-lipped rhetoric with a distinct sense of the absurd, the joke of it all, which they exhibit whenever there is danger in the air.”The danger is the cutthroat man’s-world of Hollywood, and Anderson and Wilson are boys brimming with enthusiasm running headlong into it. They are boys with stories to tell, and the stories are their own. They might be dreamers, like their slightly-off-kilter but always empathetic protagonists, but as Bottle Rocket’s Mr. Henry reminds us, “The world needs dreamers” (Hancock 2).

What Hancock states about Anderson can also be said about his characters who are all dreamers living in a world that does not coincide with their fantastic dream world. Again this can be read as some kind of self-awareness or self-criticism, because although the characters are disaffected, Anderson seems to warn us against their self-absorbed narcissism. The world, society or community is not all evil. You – the characters, Anderson himself, but also the spectator – should find a balance between your own childlike creativity, uniqueness, and solitarity and on the other hand “playing” along with other people. One should learn how to play the game of the world and be a member of a society.


Dugan, Emily. “Wes Anderson: The Man in the Ironic Mask”. The Independent, 21 February 2010. Web. 25 June 2012.
Gooch, Joshua. “Making a Go of It: Paternity and Prohibition in the Films of Wes Anderson. Cinema Journal.” Cinema Journal 47.1 (2007): 26-48.
Hancock, Brannon M. “A Community of Characters – the Narrative Self in the Films of Wes Anderson”. The Journal of Religion and Film 9.2 (2005): 1-7.
Levine, Paul. “J.D. Salinger: The Development of the Misfit Hero”. Twentieth Century Literature 4.3 (1958): 92-99.
Lim, David. “Giving Chase to Young Love on the Run: Wes Anderson’s ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ With Bill Murray”. The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 11 May 2012. Web. 20 May 2012.
Salinger, J.D. Nine Stories. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1991.
Salinger, J.D. Franny and Zooey. London: Penguin Books, 2010.
Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.
Salinger, J.D. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.
Seitz, Matt Zoller. “The Substance of Style”. MovingImageSource. Museum of the Moving Image, 17 May 2012. Web. 2 June 2012.
Strauch, Carl F. “Kings in the Back Row: Meaning through Structure. A Reading of Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”.” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature 2.1 (1961): 5-30.


2 thoughts on “Synecdoche in Wes Anderson and J.D. Salinger

  1. As always, very interesting post with a lot of content on one of my favourite directors. Not bad for a girl.
    When you were talking of physical harm to Wes characters it seemed to lack a reference to Mr. Fox (you don’t talk that much about Fantastic in your posts, why’s that?). Fox loses his tail, which anthropomorphizes (yeah, I know big words too)him even more, making him look the way he felt in the beginning of the movie: like a tamed animal. In the end he reattaches it and dances wildly in the least animalistic setting possible.

    • O hey pretentious arse. Haha. No you’re right, I don’t refer to Foxie enough. The traumas are definitely there in this awesome stop-motion movie. Poor Mr. Fox isn’t able to be the leader and the wild fox he once was (and still wants to be) and his broken tail indeed exteriolizes this. But you can see that this really is a thing Wes employs! I’ll keep Mr. Fox more actively in mind next time I write about Wes.

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